To act as if AIDS is over is incorrect and to behave as if we have escaped its traumatic legacy is equally untrue
Dear millennial gays,
It’s World AIDS Day and we should be mourning, but we aren’t. Whatever your HIV status and wherever you are, you have lost more than you know and you should be angry. AIDS wasn’t always AIDS. The slew of names that circulated in the early 80s as the crisis was born have mostly been forgotten. The discarded alternatives tell a story that is rapidly fading from our collective memory.
The first official title, quickly abandoned, was GRID, Gay Related Immune Deficiency. Who this disease affected was supposedly clear, and for many, whose fault it was seemed equally clear. The colloquial alternatives tell the same story: it was the ‘gay cancer’ in some reports, the ‘gay plague’ in others. The most startling, however, was a term in circulation amongst homophobic elements of the US hospital system: WOGS – Wrath of God Syndrome.
AIDS was understood as a divine judgement by some, and by others as simply nature’s way of correcting the debauched promiscuity of the nascent LGBT community. The story of the word is lost, just as the story of the crisis seems to fade – either it’s over, or it’s a sub-Saharan African problem, or even now, it’s the fault of those living as HIV positive. Gays of my generation – the first where HIV/AIDS isn’t a death sentence, and where PrEP and PEP can prevent infection – know that the disease relates to us.
Some might know that HIV transmission rates are rising and that 110,000 now live as HIV positive. Others might know that one in eight men who have sex with men (MSM) in London are HIV positive, and that in 2013 around 3250 MSM were infected, the highest number of all time. What fewer understand is how the AIDS crisis continues to mark the lives of all LGBT people, regardless of their status.
The struggles of those who came before us are hazier by the year. We weren’t there when police would wear gloves to brutalise LGBT activists demanding access to retroviral medication, so our tainted blood wouldn’t infect them. Nor did we witness our lovers and friends’ bodies refused burial for fear of contamination, or have to face pickets by homophobic elements of the Church in the eventuality that we did secure a place to mourn our dead.
We didn’t have to care for our dying LGBT companions, maybe while struggling with our own HIV status. We didn’t have to deal with the pain of our lovers and friends becoming ashes on the mantelpiece. For us – naively, again – we can understand sex as a pleasure not a threat, even though AIDS is far from over.
Learning the above might provoke sadness, a sense of injustice, maybe even rage. But to act as if AIDS is over is incorrect, and to behave as if we have escaped its traumatic legacy is equally untrue. Those who did lose their partners in love, sex, crime, or all of the above, are still mourning, and the LGBT community at large is indelibly marked, whether we know it or not.
“We weren’t there when police would wear gloves to brutalise LGBT activists demanding access to retroviral medication, so our tainted blood wouldn’t infect them. Nor did we witness our lovers and friends’ bodies refused burial for fear of contamination”
The gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people lost to AIDS are our history: they might have been our friends, mentors, lovers or even family. They might have been there as we struggled with shame and self-loathing growing up, and might have been able to let us understand that we aren’t alone or abnormal.
They were the ones who organised across gender, sexuality, race and class boundaries to bring about meaningful political action such as the lowering of drug prices and faster medical trials. Their activism was a paradigm that is rarely matched, but now its lessons go unlearned. When we lament the dearth of LGBT figures in prominent social positions, we act as if it’s simply a problem of the media and representation. We don’t understand that hordes of them are quite simply dead.
Being LGBT, we can’t often learn from our often cis, straight parents. We need different kinds of knowledge and experience. Intergenerational friendship or romance is often our only way of accessing our history, and AIDS almost destroyed that.
HIV and AIDS charities are doing invaluable work that we should all support: fighting for PrEP to be available on the NHS, battling for more comprehensive sex education in schools, calling for testing awareness and striving to remove the stigma that, 35 years on, still exists and still kills. They’re fighting for funds in sub-Saharan Africa, where around 70 per cent of the world’s 33 million HIV-positive people are living, and we should support that as comprehensively as we can.
But we should power such militancy with our own mourning, and understand what has been lost in a more holistic way. For one day at least, we should be thinking of what we have lost, how homophobic government policies failed to react quickly enough to the ‘gay plague’, and how we have lost more than we might ever realise, in part, because of those in power. A generation of loss doesn’t just disappear by the next. None of the LGBT have escaped the legacy of AIDS, even if we no longer face it as the death sentence it once was. The pandemic in the West would not be remembered so rarely or so fleetingly if it had been straight, so why are we so silent when it’s queer?